Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s a long history in fiction of using satire to comment on institutions such as government and academia. It’s there in crime fiction, just as it is in other genre fiction, and in literary fiction. Satire can be very successful, too. Let’s look at an example of satire in crime fiction today, and turn the spotlight on Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Corridors of Death, the first in her series featuring Robert Amiss.
In this novel, Amiss works as Private Secretary to Sir Nicholas Clark, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Conservation (fans of this series will know that he does other things as the series evolves). One afternoon, both Amiss and Clark are at a meeting of the Industry and Government Group. During a break in the proceedings, Clark is bludgeoned as he goes into a cubicle in the men’s room. The police are called, and an investigation begins. Leading the team is Detective Superintendent James Milton. Amiss being the victim’s private secretary, Milton thinks he’ll be very helpful. For his part, Amiss is intrigued with the investigation, and he likes what he’s seen of Milton. So, he and Milton agree to share information. They’ll have to do so quietly, since Amiss is risking his career by breaking ranks with the department. Milton risks a lot, too, by sharing information with a person who is, technically, a suspect, at least at first.
It’s soon shown that Amiss isn’t the killer. So, he and Milton begin meeting quietly, outside of either’s office, to compare notes. And there are plenty of notes to compare. Sir Nicholas was a malicious person who deliberately went out of his way to sabotage the careers of other department members. So, each of his colleagues had a strong motive for murder. And, since they were on hand, each of them had the opportunity to commit it.
Then, there’s another murder. Now, Milton and Amiss have to work out whether the two murders are linked. As it turns out, they are. So, the two have to go back to the proverbial drawing board and see who would have had the opportunity to commit both murders.
As Milton and his team look at the various suspects, they don’t neglect Clark’s personal life. And there are motives there, too. It turns out that both Clark’s wife, Eleanor, and his son, Nigel, had good reason to want him dead. And either of them might be covering for the other.
Little by little, and each in a different way, Milton and Amiss look for the truth. And, in the end, they learn what really happened to Sir Nicholas. It turns out that this murder is rooted as much in psychology as anything else.
The context for the novel is the halls of the UK’s government bureaucracy. So, readers are privy to bureaucratic procedure, the many levels of the government hierarchy, and other aspects of the way government is run behind the scenes.
And Edwards takes a satirical look at that context. Here, for instance, is some of what Amiss tells Milton about one of the ways to tell who’s who in the government structure:
‘‘To put it simply, if you’ve got no other evidence to go on, the use of the Christian name is the key to finding out a man’s status and prospects. Thus, if you are sitting with an official of immense importance, and two men enter the room – one young and spotty, one middle-aged and distinguished looking – you may assume that the former works for the latter. Then, you hear young and spotty address your host as Alaric and middle aged and distinguished address him as Mr. Snodgrass. This means that young and spotty is a high-flyer, has a good degree – probably from Oxbridge – and has come into the service at the bottom of the administrative ladder. The other poor fellow, who may still outrank him, is a decent soul who has worked his way up the executive ranks, but has little hope of ever attaining real power.’’
And here’s what Amiss says when Milton tells him that just about everyone in the department was in the restroom at about the time of the murder.
‘It would be civil servants. They develop highly trained bladders to save them ever missing any part of a meeting lest their departmental interests suffer from their absence.’’
There are other ways, too, in which Edwards skewers government bureaucrats. We see plenty of backbiting, sabotage, ‘extracurricular activities,’ overblown egos and an overabundance of ambition.
There isn’t the same sort of venality among the police characters. And there is a strong element of the police procedural, as Milton and his team interview suspects, deal with police administration, and make sense of evidence. Since the book was published in 1981, we see how the police went about their work before the days of easy computer access, the Internet, or mobile telephones. It’s not spoiling the story to say that readers who are tired of ‘patch wars,’ corrupt police, and other police politics will be pleased to know that that sort of thing doesn’t really happen in this novel. By and large, the police work as a team.
The mystery is solved through police work, evidence-gathering, and some solid intuition. And, since the story is told from both Amiss’ and Milton’s perspectives (third person, past tense), we see how each sleuth goes about making sense of the events. Readers who enjoy reading about two sleuths who complement each other will appreciate that.
Corridors of Death uses a murder mystery to take a satirical look at what goes on behind the impressive doors of government offices. It features a traditional-style whodunit, and introduces two sleuths who each bring some important skills to solving it. But what’s your view? Have you read Corridors of Death? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 28 August/Tuesday, 29 August – The Colaba Conspiracy – Surender Mohan Pathak
Monday, 4 September/Tuesday, 5 September – The Earth Hums in B Flat – Mari Strachan.
Monday, 11 September/Tuesday, 12 September – The Dawn Patrol – Don Winslow